So, how’s it going?

Not so bad, thanks for asking. Apart from updating this blog, it seems.

“Esotericism now classes these seven variations, with their four great divisions, into only three distinct primeval races — as it does not take into consideration the First Race, which had neither type nor colour, and hardly an objective, though colossal form.”

Helena Blavatsky, The Secret Doctrine vol. 2: Anthropogenesis

In trying to wrap my head around WaRP, I seem to have written a completely new game by mistake. It’s approaching readiness for public consumption, and I’m quite pleased with it.

It started with me putting a bit of meat on the bones of the Fringe Powers section of the WaRP rules. Not in the sense of greatly expanding the list of available powers, but more in the sense of making a “fringe powers toolkit”. I’ve long admired Everway’s approach to constructing powers and I wanted something similar in this system.

To that I’ve added stress loading mechanics (taking inspiration from Don’t Rest Your Head and Greg Saunder’s Summerland). Partly this leverages WaRP’s Flaws, Motivations and Secrets, making them slightly more mechanical.

The third item is agency building. Nothing complicated. But in this game, the characters are under constant observation by agencies with (a) different motivations and (b) different lines they’re willing to cross.

Anything else?

Well, it’s urban fantasy, it’s characters-as-the-monsters, so it’s well-trodden ground by both mainstream and indie RPGs, well into my comfort zone if not very original. Closer to the spiral into madness of DRYH (i.e. the way Vampire: the Masquerade should be) than the messy relationship territory of Monsterhearts.

But it’s bring your own myth. There’s a bare minimum of premise (where the monsters really come from) but after that, well — a fairy is a fairy, a vampire is a vampire. Any creative player interested in this genre will put their own spin on the myths, no need for me to provide mine. Although for the record, I’ve been watching Grimm and re-reading Clive Barker’s early fantasy.

So I’m feeling fairly positive about the exercise, and the modular approach is working — the components here also slot right into my other game.


[we are]

There’s no easy way to say this, so I’m going to come out with it.

You’re a vehicle for an Atlantean colony. Somehow you became infected with a microscopic pre-human civilisation. Possibly you inherited it from your parents. Or maybe you were bitten recently by… something… and the colony found a new vehicle. Maybe someone deliberately infected you for their own reasons. Do you remember being bundled into a black van by people in ski masks and given an injection against your will? That’s how it happens sometimes.

Vehicle is one of their terms, by the way. You’re a means to an end, something that they can steer. They’ll steer your body, your thoughts, your feelings, your life. Eventually, none of this will be yours.

Have you been experiencing any side effects? Altered perception? Strength, speed, appetite? Urges to meet strangers in remote gothic locations to compare clothing? 

The Institute is here to help. We’re just going to need a sample. Lie still.

To SRD, or not SRD?

I’ve been going through a crisis with my game. The various procedures for city building and play are coming along nicely, but the thing I’ve been lacking is what happens at the individual level. You know, on the character sheet.

I’d convinced myself this would have an entirely new system. In some ways that’s a bit absurd: I’m influenced by certain kinds of games, and those influences are going to shape any kind of game system I design. Whatever I make up it won’t be from whole cloth; in fact I want it to closely resemble the games I like running today.

So, over the last month I’ve been going back and forth between different designs, trying to conceive the perfect, minimalist system as a base for the procedures of play, and beating myself up a bit in the process.

The first lightbulb moment came listening to fine folks on the UKRoleplayers board talking about their designs, and false dawns in their creative process. Now, I was nowhere near the dawn with this particular problem, but what it did remind me is that plenty of creative people will look at something they’ve done, and they will find fault with it, and that’s OK. Something in my gut was not satisfied with my base system. So I listened to it, and I felt better about saying “no, that’s not going to work.”

After that hurdle the second lightbulb came pretty quickly, and that was if you’re not going to design something yourself, why not look around and see what’s free? So I looked into open gaming.

FATE, fascinating system that it is, is not right for what I want to achieve. Neither is an Apocalypse World hack. Anything resembling BRP (such as the rather good Renaissance) is too fiddly, and Traveller is too stark. And d20? Not for me, thanks.

What I really want is a game where traits are painted with a very broad brush, with minimal moving parts. Something like Everway, except Everway isn’t open. But there’s another minimalist system by Jonathan Tweet (with Robin Laws): WaRP.

It’s Just A Jump To The Left

And that’s my third lightbulb moment. I knew full well that the system had been released under OGL following OTE’s 20th anniversary, but for some reason it took a while to sink in that I could use it for my own game.

I suppose it’s a peculiar choice in this day and age. WaRP’s three broad traits with a fourth fault satisfy my numerological tendencies, but they’re not exactly descriptors like FATE’s aspects, they don’t have the granularity of OpenQuest, or the familiarity of the OSR, or direct agency of AW’s moves. They’re kind of a throwback to 90’s minimalist gaming; exactly the kind of play I like the most, but not what you could call popular.

We shall see whether it works. These are the reasons I really like WaRP:

First, there’s the three traits. The central trait is basically a career trait, not dissimilar to Barbarians of Lemuria’s non-combat careers. The two side traits are slightly narrower descriptions of actual competencies (like driving, engineering, fighting).

The kind and number of dice are just right: good old D6, with small numbers in the pool so every roll doesn’t become a tiresome hunt-and-peck for numbers. The WaRP SRD gives various options for interesting results such as the effect of 6s (exploding or otherwise).

Fringe Powers (magic) are freeform, and limited use per session. Not per day, per session. That’s a smart mechanic that encourages continual use of Fringe Powers, but not so much that they dominate the game.

I also like the experience system: it’s measured in dice, as in real d6 that can be used to augment rolls, again per-session. However you also spend those dice to improve, leading to a choice: keep a large Experience Pool to help you out of sticky situations more often, or spend it to improve your core abilities?

Some features will need clarification, or expansion, but on the whole I feel very comfortable about using WaRP, modified or straight. It’s also something of a relief to have made a decision to use this system, at least in the interim. Now I can focus on other things.

Writing is Lonely

This is my New Year resolutions post.

Writing is a lonely business. Writing requires a lot of self-belief, and a lot of discipline, and some times you run out of both, and that’s OK.

However… I don’t believe I have run out of either. What I have done so far is procrastinate, lose track of the passing weeks, fail to write a proper outline (as opposed to the stacks of index cards I have scattered around the office) and generally fool myself that it’s OK that I haven’t written as much as I would have liked–I’ve been tired, or ill, or travelling a lot for work so all of that has to take precedence over creative work that I do alone in my office after I finish the day job.

Well, it’s not OK, really. I’d like to finish this project, and the next, and the next. Work will only get harder this year.

Now, in my day job, I set goals, milestones, have weekly meetings and reminders. Why am I not doing the same thing for this project? Probably because somewhere in my brain I’ve told myself this is not work, this is creative stuff, this is the antithesis of order and discipline and knuckling down–which is plainly silly, but I’m only human.

So, applying a bit of day-job logic, this should be simple.

1. Set weekly milestones but also weekly progress reports. Compare the progress reports to the milestones, and either up the pace or adjust the milestones to something more realistic, depending on the end goals.

2. Have a proper project plan with a timeline.


Anyway… the good news is that I’m not horrifically blocked, staring at a blank sheet of paper on my typewriter*, I’ve just been my usual lazy self. There is an outline with chapter headings, there is content, there is an actual game. The goal was to have the first draft written by the end of this year, but two week’s slippage is probably tolerable.

The other good news is the difference between writing games instead of fiction; the latter really is solitary, but at least games have a social feedback mechanism built in with playtesting. That’s starting up again in the new year now we have new sofas and guests aren’t forced to sit on spikes.

I’m not sure how I’ll announce my progress. I’ll think of something. I know at least one author who announced his current word count via twitter, although that’s not really my thing. Otherwise the new years resolutions are to have a plan and stick to it, run the game, and read and write daily (as usual).

The two hardest parts of design and writing I’m finding at the moment are (i) what’s my system and (ii) what’s my setting. This may sound absurd since game is basically system + setting, so I’ll elaborate. I have a set of procedures for world building, I have an idea of how players come together to play, and I have an idea of the setting I would like to run in. I haven’t decided on mechanism for randomisation (or if that’s even necessary; I’m in favour of a Karma/Drama approach a la Everway or Amber). As for the world, the game is about players developing and owning the world, so being prescriptive on the game world is sort of contrary to the design goals. But it’s fine. It’s just another decision.

Happy new year!


* Typewriters are awesome. They go click-clack. They don’t get the internet. They’re not so good for making blog posts, though.


Avoiding Level Slip

I’m lucky to have friends who will read my text, and even luckier that they’re pretty brutal with their feedback. At least, after a bit of coaxing… in our last reading session, they danced around the issue with a few positive remarks about fairly innocuous details, which meant that the feedback for the text as a whole was going to be less than positive. Eventually, I just asked them to give it to me straight, like a pear cider made from 100% pears.

“What you have here… is level slip.”

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Who Will Buy?

Simon Burley’s article on USP touched on a subject I’m also concerned about. Who am I selling my game to?

My game started as a setting-free toolkit, but I’m told that toolkits are hard to market. Since I’m a consumer of games I can do some handy market research on my bookshelf (or hard drive). I reckon I’ve identified five marketing levers:

  1. Genre
  2. Setting
  3. Tools
  4. Procedures
  5. Experimental

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Threats and Promises

Remedy this situation, restore spice production, or you will live out your life in a pain amplifier.

Spacing Guild Representative to Emperor Shaddam IV

Conflict in RPGs is king, and identifying conflict is the keystone to successful implementation. Without conflict there is no challenge and no drama.

So of course there’s conflict in a roleplaying game. All of our game subsystems are geared to managing, measuring and resolving conflicts of one kind or another. This can be detailed or simplistic depending on tastes, system familiarity and priorities, but I think it’s fair to say that combat gets a disproportionate amount of attention in most games.

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Playtest Metrics

There doesn’t seem to be much advice — that’s discoverable advice from a few Google searches — on how to run a playtest of your shiny new RPG. As an outsider1 to this process, the prevailing attitudes seem to be

  • play it until it breaks, and
  • if you’re having fun, you’re not playtesting. Playtesting should feel like work, not fun.

The first is good advice but rather broad, and the second stems to the same school-of-hard-knocks mentality that pervades some professions — that you do not learn your job from a book, you learn from doing, being knocked back a few times, and getting stronger. And I’ve been there and done that with a lot of things, both work-wise and hobby-wise, so I’m sympathetic to this view.

Still, it doesn’t hurt to organise my thoughts — and in doing so, maybe I can avoid at least some iterative navel-gazing that arises from the “just see what works” approach. So this post is about me thinking about what I want from the game in a fairly high-level conceptual sense, and how to gauge the response of the players.

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City and Square

A few years ago, I ran a fantasy game set in a vast city. Well, not just in a vast city; there was dimension hopping and time travel and navigating heavenly bodies. But I started with the ambition of telling the story of the city. I’d been subsisting on a literary diet of Warren Ellis’ Transmetropolitan and M John Harrison’s Viriconium and naturally I’d read Gormenghast and others.

The system was terribly generic, at least to start with, and I was never truly satisfied. I went through at least one complete shift to a different system (originally BRP, then some kind of Storyteller variant). I doubt the players minded nearly as much as I did. Looking back the system did a few things right but it was a terrible muddle.

Years later I came up with a tool I called the City Accelerator, which was the best name I could come up with at short notice. It’s the tool I would have used to map the city, if I’d thought of it at the right time. Since I didn’t, I decided to turn it into its own game.

The game isn’t about that city, it’s about any city where people are living anonymously, cheek-by-jowl. The City Accelerator is just one component; people will be another, and character a third. More to follow, TTFN.